This children’s book calls upon the “happy slave” narrative once again
There is something particularly disturbing about efforts to indoctrinate children with positive ideas about American slavery.
Sometimes, the fact that slavery even happened is conveniently overlooked. At other times, it is romanticized to the point of seeming more like a tough but rewarding job than chattel bondage. A new book called A Birthday Cake for George Washington seeks to do just that.
The story is written by veteran journalist and author Ramin Ganeshram, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and published by Scholastic, arguably the most well-known publisher of children’s books in the United States. They describe the story saying,
“Everyone is buzzing about the president’s birthday! Especially George Washington’s servants, who scurry around the kitchen preparing to make this the best celebration ever. Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president’s cake. But this year there is one problem — they are out of sugar.”
By focusing on the culinary aspects of what they call “historical fiction,” Ganeshram seems to take the spotlight off of the fact that these were indeed slaves. Their work seems to be more about devotion to Washington than the fact that they were compelled by law and brute force to do everything. The description goes on to say,
“This story, told in the voice of Delia, Hercules’s young daughter, is based on real events, and underscores the loving exchange between a very determined father and his eager daughter, who are faced with an unspoken, bittersweet reality. No matter how delicious the president’s cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa will not taste the sweetness of freedom.”
The book first came to most people’s attention when Teaching for Change posted about it on Facebook this week. They wrote,
“Believe it or not, a new 2016 children’s book from Scholastic features a story about “happy slaves” who are pleased to cook a cake for President George Washington.”
Philly.com gives a more thorough account of what it meant to be Washington’s enslaved chef in the 18th century. They note that Hercules was purchased at 13 years old and endured backbreaking labor under Washington until he ran away in 1797, just a year after the events this story supposedly depicts. Hercules was so pressed to escape that he even left his daughter behind in bondage. This is a fact which directly counters the “happy slave” narrative set forth in the book.
The story is riddled with problematic messages and images about what it meant to be enslaved during this period. It situates Hercules and his daughter in a picturesque environment where their status in the kitchen offers them pride and joy rather than the toil and pain we know slavery to have been.
To add, centering George Washington’s birthday, as if it were an event these enslaved people genuinely wanted to celebrate, reflects a commitment to White Supremacy. What’s worse, it is written for children approximately 7 to 11 years old and is being lauded as a “true story.” This demographic likely hasn’t had access to enough counter-literatures and histories to offset the bias in this book.
Overall, it is unsettling that, in 2016, a story like this is still being printed, packaged, and sold to children. Slavery is something that simply shouldn’t be rewritten nor idealized. It is one of the ugliest blemishes in American history, a history in which Washington himself was thoroughly invested.